Friday, January 7, 2011

The Courage to Teach

Yesterday, I began the apprenticeship portion of yoga teacher training by sitting in, along with several of my fellow teacher-trainees, on a beginner-level yoga class. I sat up along the wall, by the door, scribbling copious notes into my notebook, relieved that I had two fellow trainees to sit there with me. I took a lot of notes and tried to be inconspicuous and I was further relieved when the students in the class began, one by one, to close their eyes and turn inward to follow their own process. Very quickly it seemed that they forgot we were even there--which was just fine with me!

I had been quite nervous about apprenticing, counting down the days until we started, and the uneasiness surprised me very much. There have been a number of things about this training program that have generated a case of the jitters for me, but coming into a class of beginners to be introduced as one who was actually deliberating seeking to teach yoga really threw me for a loop. 

Why would this particular part of the training program be so nerve-wracking? I asked myself this question a number of times. After all, I was a teacher for over two decades (in one of my previous lives, and about a subject that is very different from yoga: chemistry!) so I can envision myself as a teacher. I assumed, at first, that the nervousness was about the usual sense of not being quite as athletically-accomplished as I used to think a yoga teacher must be.

This is part of it, and the thought of having to demonstrate a pose in front of a group can easily account for at least some of the fear. I also remember, though, that there was a great deal of fear involved in teaching chemistry--and not only for the students, many of whom are afraid of the subject, worried about their grades, fearful of the math they often felt they didn't understand, and on and on. Fear runs both ways in the classroom: teachers are often quite fearful and this fear can amplify the student's fears. 

I was no different than most teachers and always felt nervous and, yes, afraid on the first day of class. I never got over the first-day jitters when I was teaching chemistry, even though I was very confident about my knowledge of the material. Those first-day jitters became every-day jitters whenever I taught one of the large lecture courses. It's scary to walk to the front of a room filled with two, three or four hundred people, especially people who mostly don't want to be there and who sometimes see you as a barrier between themselves and where they want to be (like medical school!)

So, thinking about being a yoga teacher has reminded me of what it means to be a teacher, period, and I realize that I am continuing a process begun long ago when I first began exploring what Parker Palmer calls the "inner landscape of a teacher's life." This is a phrase from Parker's wonderful book The Courage to Teach, and I benefited greatly both from the book and from Parker himself as he led me and hundreds of other teachers through workshops and retreats designed to help us find the courage to teach and keep teaching.

Now, as I look through this book, which I have not opened for at least ten years, I see so many things that seem they might have at least a little to do with how a Chemistry professor could start in the lab and lecture hall and end up on a yoga mat. Parker says, "Teaching holds a mirror to the soul," and "Knowing myself is as crucial to good teaching as knowing my students and my subject." Ideas like these encouraged me to consider the possibility that knowing myself better, such as through the practice of yoga, was good not only for me but for my students. It's probably no accident that I began the study of yoga about the time I first encountered Parker and his ideas.

Parker's ideas were always quite unique among those I engaged with in academia and I was thrilled to recently learn that he is continuing his work at the Center for Courage and Renewal. The programs at the center are mostly aimed at classroom teachers for academic subjects, since there is so little support in the academy for the idea that "knowing oneself" can have anything to do with good teaching. Most yoga teachers would never question this truth, but until I opened up Parker's book this week, I had managed to suppress the memory that it was, and is, a completely foreign idea in most universities and colleges.

Parker writes a lot, and eloquently, about the academic bias that says "objective facts are regarded as pure, while subjective feelings are suspect and sullied." This is true in all academic subjects, but is nearly an article of faith in the physical sciences, which was my subject. As Parker has observed, in this type of culture, the self is not the source within but, somehow, dangerous and truth-obscuring. In this culture, subjective feelings are not a potential source of guidance but obstacles to be overcome. In this culture, the truth is "out there," while "in here" all we can hope to find are our muddled, confused thoughts--which, of course, we need a teacher to help us sort through.

So, I think I will read some more of Parker's book, remembering just how much courage it took to teach science for so many decades, and just how it was that I tried to stay true to the principle of "know thyself" that he taught to us--and, what a privilege it is going to be to be a teacher again. 



  1. So, how do you figure chemistry differs from yoga?

  2. Even i was very nervous in my first yoga class but managed to get along very quickly.Going on yoga holiday is a pure refreshment for the soul..Its like a spiritual vacation for one.

  3. Good question, Meredith! Maybe when I'm a better yogi I'll be able to see how chemistry and yoga are the same, but right now the two seem worlds apart. I have, as you know, been working towards an integration of what I still see as very different aspects of my life, but it's still a work in progress. Or, maybe I should say, I'm still a work in progress! :)